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Cabaret Keeps On

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Ute Lemper
Ute Lemper was quoted by Barry Singer last week in The New York Times as saying the following: "Cabaret in New York is dessert entertainment. Audiences here view it as a public ego demonstration of one's private personality. The German tradition of 'kabarett'--the cabaret performer as activist, as opposed to 'cabaret,' which is just entertainment--makes people extremely uncomfortable, particularly right after an expensive dinner."

Strange that Lemper should distance herself from New York cabaret, since--by dint of two Joe's Pub appearances in the last year--she has made herself a part of what she so negatively characterizes. The only explanation for her ungainly outburst is that the entertainer--who couldn't be bolder in her act, grabbing patrons' wallets and extracting the cash, cajoling ladies onto the stage for a slow fox trot--didn't have the opportunity before or after performances to survey the local scene more thoroughly. Sightings of her sizing up colleagues were rare at, among other possible venues, the FireBird Cafe, Don't Tell Mama, Danny's Skylight Room, Arci's Place, Feinstein's at the Regency, and Judy's Chelsea.

Joe's Pub
Apparently she didn't even hang around Joe's Pub to catch Lea DeLaria. Indeed, everything Lemper looks for in cabaret--or 'kabarett'--could be found in the fearless DeLaria, who chided and challenged the cocktail guzzlers in her wise-guy pin-stripe suit with her torch song intros that, she made plain, referred to spoiled romances with women. She was confrontational about gender and the bending of it--the embodiment of political activism.

But if international boite star Lemper could plead time limitations as a reason for negligence, what is Singer's excuse? Although his surname implies an understanding of cabaret, his dismissive--even insulting--article belies it. Professing an affinity for 1920s cabaret, which he can't have experienced first-hand, he describes today's Manhattan manifestation as "[c]lassy song recitals of old music in smart rooms by good singers." And he unfavorably compares contemporary cabaret to Weimar Republic cabaret--which in its proliferation of satirical material--was, he insists, "sardonic, sophisticated, gorgeously profane."

In so doing, he defines the cabaret of both periods narrowly, and makes the additional and unfortunately common mistake of holding up the best of a bygone era against the bulk of the current day. He's right about the fact that there are existing formulas by which a certain percentage of today's cabaret is prepared, but he's wrong to think that they are the all-encompassing rule. Any fair-minded historian would inform him that there was an abundance of 1920s chaff in the Berlin music halls, and--wised up!--he might more reasonably conclude that today's bad is about equal in quantity to yesteryear's.

By the way, Singer holds up Friedrich Hollaender as one of the foremost examples of earlier excellence, without noting--or even noticing?--that political conditions in the songwriter's day sent him to Hollywood and away from Berlin and an already-doomed cabaret climate. And Singer might always remember that it was Friedrich Hollaender/Frederick Hollander who wrote "Falling in Love Again," one of the best-ever examples of "a public ego demonstration of one's private personality."

Insisting that the cabaret rooms in New York now are "endlessly serving up yesterday's music to deep-pocketed sophisticates," Singer gives as his substantiation the current line-up at Feinstein's at the Regency, which includes Linda Eder, Glen Campbell (who will appear with Jimmy Webb), and Mr. Feinstein himself. He also mentions Robert Goulet, who has since canceled (not, evidently, as a consequence of the Times knock), and he doesn't mention Rosemary Clooney, who also is returning.

Agreed, the just-mentioned performers are not purveyors of trenchant social commentary, but neither are they the equivalent of masseurs rubbing baby oil into the flabby backs of mindless spa-goers. These talented folks are and can be--particularly in the persons of Feinstein and Clooney--vital entertainers who shouldn't be given the back of the hand for singing "yesterday's music." Singer should keep in mind that those he's belittling represent some of the best popular songs ever written in this country, a canon not to be thrown away wrapped in last night's trends.

As slick female impersonator James Beaman said in an angry letter to the website Cabaret Hotline, "Mr. Singer doesn't get out much." If he did, he wouldn't have restricted his view to Feinstein's and given a mere nod to some of the other extant rooms. He'd have realized there are many cabaret entertainers who have, in the vernacular of Singer's headline writer, an edge. It might not be the edge for which Singer longs--who's being nostalgic now? --but it is an edge. It's the edge of individual talent, character. It's more the personal than the political, although the argument could be made that the personal is political.

The list of trump artists may not be endless, but it's long. Take Baby Jane Dexter, who trades in the contemporary blues and doesn't so much fill a room as shake it. (At the Backstage Bistro Awards held February 28, emcee Jim David, addressing a group of sympathizers heated up about the Singer piece, quipped, "Anyone who says cabaret doesn't have edge hasn't seen Baby Jane Dexter in a mood.") Take David Gurland, a singer as short and solid as a beer keg, who can twist Sting's "Ev'ry Breath You Take" into a stalker's insidious boast. Take the soigné Andrea Marcovicci and/or the suave Mary Cleere Haran, neither of whom use blunt satirist's tools but choose material--granted, generally traditional--that offers them the opportunity to hold up the mirror to a sometimes grim, sometimes cheering society. Take Scott Coulter, who may look like a grown Teletubby but has no qualm about delivering Tim DiPasqua's "Big Hairy Man," which deals with a gay man's choice between quick sex and dull domesticity. None of what these performers do--there are many more like them--is conventional, reassuring or dated.

Susan Egan as Sally Bowles
in the Roundabout Theatre's
production of Cabaret
A last remark might be made about Singer, whose smoothly-written excoriation reflects an even more disturbing misconception about cabaret. He says that "the current scene does seem more frivolously disconnected from the culture at large than ever before." He's right about the "disconnected" part, but it's thoughtless of him to chalk up the disconnectedness to frivolousness, as if the entertainers and audiences around now are no more than a gaggle of Sally Bowleses pretending nothing of any importance is crashing around them. (Incidentally, Sally Bowles represents some of that ubiquitous Weimar chaff. Or was Christopher Isherwood making her up out of whole cloth?)

That type of cabaret has become a marginalized area in which entertainers' toil is the consequence of many evolutionary changes--societal, cultural, economic, technological--and in some ways, it's produced a chicken-and-egg question: Has cabaret shifted so far from popular taste because it is, perceived to be, less cogent? Or is cabaret perceived to be less cogent because public taste has shifted away from it.

Cabaret's loss of sway in a larger art-and-commerce context has given rise to the misapprehension that it is now mostly an arena for vanity presentations. The perception is, to some extent, self-eventuating. Some proprietors hold to policies whereby vanity productions are used to fill rooms that would languish otherwise. And as one domino fells another, those who still champion the intimate room as a show business nonpareil band together like forlorn passengers on the Titanic. But just because the ship may sometimes looks as if it may be sinking doesn't mean those aboard have lost their intrinsic worth.

It may or may not be true that life is a cabaret, but it is still true that--naysayers notwithstanding--cabaret here and now continues to have invigorating life.

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